On Sunset Boulevard: business as usual for Chop-Chop, Chaka and the LAPD

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"Hollywood? It's kinda seedy and well past its heyday," says Sergeant Tingrides of the Los Angeles vice squad, on his way to pick up four prostitutes on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Stanley.

Residents had reported 10 prostitutes working the intersection at 8pm on Tuesday evening, but on his return Tingrides sounded pleased with his haul."We coulda got all 10 but I've been up since six and a man's gotta get some rest."

Later, around midnight, there are perhaps 40 girls working on the "tracks", a strip of Sunset between Crescent Heights and La Brea. They dart back and forth across the wide, palm-lined avenue, avoiding the police and showing their wares off to passing motorists.

There's Chaka, a tall black woman in a blue laced corset; a popular Asian girl they call Chop-Chop, in a black catsuit, gold ear-rings and gold shoes; and Candy, her bra strap showing above her Christmas red body suit, a tiny black patent handbag over her shoulder. Most of the girls claim to know Denise "Divine" Brown, the girl arrested with Hugh Grant, and expect her, despite the publicity and the tabloid offers to kiss and tell, to show up at 1am as usual. She doesn't.

With cars of potential tricks cruising past, time is money and few girls will speak without some reward; business is, after all, business, and a good night can bring in $1,000.

Toni is dressed head-to-toe in yellow patent leather from Frederick's of Hollywood, and wears Calvin Klein perfume. She is 25 and has a four- year-old son, and she has has been working the streets since she was 15. She says she knows Miss Brown from her home town of San Francisco. "She's my home girl and I can tell you that's not her real name," she informs me, for $20.

The LAPD usually steps up its patrols on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but tonight, flush with success, the cops are especially prevalent. They stop, lights flashing, put the girls up against the wall, take Polaroids, and issue $55 tickets like confetti. "They're just making a big deal out of it tonight because of Hugh Grant," complains Shara, a 22-year-old black girl in high heels and blue spangly shorts. "If it had been just any motherfucking trick they couldn't have cared less."

The going price for oral sex is $40, for straight sex, $60, but the transvestite prostitutes, mincing around a few blocks down toward Santa Monica, will earn little more than $20 for any service they perform.

The girls rarely take tricks to the motels on Sunset, preferring to work in nearby alleys and parking lots. For one thing, "car-dating" is quicker, and for another, they are under pressure from their pimps, who are rarely more than 100 yards from the girls.

The pimps hang around a nearby 7-Eleven store. They "run" up to six girls, take all their money, and in return buy them clothes and food, pay for their apartment and bail them out when they get busted.

At the station on Wilcox and Fountain, where the hapless Hugh Grant was charged on a "647a", or lewd conduct in a public place, tonight is business as usual. In any given week, the police pick up 200 girls, boys and transsexuals and arraign them on 647b, a basic soliciting misdemeanour.

First offenders are given the option of 15 days in the county jail or enrolment on a weekend prostitute workshop, costing $275, where they are lectured about the dangers of their trade and Aids awareness, and encouraged to take some esteem-building vocational training. The girls are also forced to take an Aids test. If it is positive, further offences will be considered not a state misdemeanour but a felony, punishable by up to three years in a federal penitentiary.

As a "john", Hugh Grant will not be tested for Aids, nor will he be "mapped- out" - given a sort of exclusion zone, within which he would be instantly arrested, even for walking down the street, between 5pm and 6am, which is what is likely to happen to Denise Brown. Jenny Brown, a deputy public defender at the downtown County Court, who may take Denise Brown's case, says: "Mapping and Aids testing is discriminatory. They are curbing their constitutional rights and it's a policy open to abuse."

But the trade keeps going. At 3am, "Mel-Vo", who says he is a rapper with a record coming out, but looks suspiciously like a pimp, sits on a fire hydrant and rues the night's slow trade. "The heat are just rocking up on them all, they've carted everyone off to jail." But a few minutes later, four girls reappear, others soon follow and it's business as usual.

No one, including Hugh Grant's arresting officer, Cory Palka, expects the trade to cease. "Hollywood is one of the marquee locations," he said yesterday. "There are some of the most attractive women in the US who come to Hollywood. They are some of our best."